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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

(Another) Misleading Editorial on Vouchers

. . . in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I know, I know--try not to look so shocked.

Today they opine on accountability in voucher schools under the bad-deal compromise legislation expected to become law any minute now. I will leave aside their accreditation statistics--which I question--because I'm working (slooooowly) on a more comprehensive post about accrediation and the MPCP. Instead, I'll just hit two points. One:
[T]he hubbub over the cap has obscured a huge breakthrough on academic accountability. Lack of such accountability has been the program's major drawback; partisan politics has heretofore blocked a solution.
I suppose "partisan politics" is an ambiguous enough phrase that it may not mean what they probably mean. There is a bad meme out there, popping up like whack-a-mole on a regular basis, that about Jim Doyle's having vetoed a "study" of voucher schools back in 2003. As I noted here, Doyle did indeed veto a bill, but it would not have provided any meaningful accountability. Aside from being funded solely by pro-voucher interests, the bill study would not have offered parents any information about the schools their children actually attend.

The same problem exists in the new law. The editorial board doesn't get that. They write,
[T]he bill requires that voucher schools administer standardized tests in reading, math and science in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades, just as the state's public schools must do. The voucher schools must give the results to the Legislative Audit Bureau for periodic analyses and to the School Choice Demonstration Project at Georgetown University, which is preparing to do a long-term study of the program. [. . .A]s part of the long-term study, a representative sample of voucher students will take the state tests.

Overwhelmingly, by the way, voucher schools already administer standardized tests. Now, the results will become public.

This legislation mustn't be the final word on academic accountability. The schools could use more transparency on such matters as truancy and graduation rates, for instance. But this measure should help the public take a good snapshot of the academic performance of voucher schools.
This is misleading in several ways. For one, it is not clear that the results would be "public." The bill says only that the Legislative Audit Bureau is to "review and analyze the standardized test score data received from the School Choice Denonstration Project [and] shall report to the legislature the results of the standardized tests administered." It is not clear that this would be anything more than program-wide averages, since the rest of the section of the bill (119.23(7)(e)2) is all about reporting the state-test sample results. There is no requirement that results be made available to the press or even to the parents of the children tested! As I have maintained all along, none of this is useful to parents, who may be trying to decide between a public school--about which all kinds of data are available--and a voucher school, about which they may not be able to learn anything.

For two, the language of the bill actually sounds like schools, except those "sample" students, will be precluded from giving the state tests at all. The bill calls for "a nationally normed standardized test." The WKCE, our state test, is technically a criterion referenced test built specifically for Wisconsin, not a nationally normed test. I'm curious to see how that one plays out.

For three, the "snapshot" of performance will be far less complete than what public schools provide, as it should go beyond the editorial's resonable calls for graduation rate and truancy reporting. Public schools, of course, now test all grades 3-8 plus 10; besides this, public schools are required to break down the data they collect by race, sex, socioeconomic status, special-education status, English language learner status, and more. Aside from the "sample" students, which will, I hope, be carefully selected to be representative, there will be no way to tell if the voucher program is actually helping those it was designed to help--poor minority students.

I do not like the test, test, test mentality associated with No Child Left Behind, but it makes no sense to me that the rigorous collecting and reporting of performance data demanded of public schools is so consistently rejected for these private schools which take our tax dollars just as eagerly. Even with the passage of this bill, which takes some baby steps in the direction of accountability, voucher schools will largely remain a black hole for any parent or taxpayer wishing to know whether the investment of time or money was worth it.

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